Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Spectres of Nature-Grace: On Dooyeweerd’s “Religious Truth”

 By Josh Harris

This post is part of an ongoing symposium interacting with Lambert Zuidervaart's book Religion, Truth, and Social Transformation: Essays in Reformational Philosophy. For more responses to the book, see our table of contents.

In his essay “Dooyeweerd’s Conception of Truth: Exposition and Critique” Lambert Zuidervaart considers Herman Dooyeweerd’s concept of “religious truth” and its consequences for the project of a properly Reformational account of truth in general. Zuidervaart remarks that Dooyeweerd’s conception of religious truth is “the very fullness of Truth without which no true knowledge of any sort would be possible. . . . All of human knowing (kennisactiviteit) is directed either toward ‘the absolute Truth’ or toward ‘the spirit of falsehood,’ thanks to ‘the transcendent religious subjective a priori of . . . cosmic self-consciousness’.”[1] These primordial dispositions—namely, the disposition towards (1) “the absolute Truth” or (2) “the spirit of falsehood”—form the most basic horizon of Dooyeweerd’s rich, multiform conception of truth in its pre-theoretical and theoretical varieties.

In what follows, I explore this notion of religious truth and Zuidervaart’s criticisms under the aspect of Dooyeweerd’s well-known analysis and critique of the so-called “Nature-Grace” ground motive which constitutes the “spiritual driving force that acts as the absolutely central mainspring of human society,” and of medieval Christendom in particular.[2] I want to suggest that Zuidervaart’s criticisms of religious truth may subtly implicate Dooyeweerd in the very dualism he so arduously strove to overcome in his rendering of medieval synthesis philosophy. Put simply, I want to argue that Dooyeweerd is “haunted” by the spectre of Nature-Grace, which runs more deeply than even he could know.

What is the Nature-Grace ground motive?

In Roots of Western Culture, Dooyeweerd describes the fundamental importance of his concept of a “religious ground motive” as it relates to his larger project of antithetical critique:
To arrive at the true and decisive meaning of this antithesis and, at the same time, to penetrate to the real source of the differences of opinion concerning its significance, it is necessary to take into account the religious ground motives [religieuze grondmotieven] of western civilization. They have been the deepest driving forces behind the entire cultural and spiritual development of the West.[3]
Religious ground motives are wellsprings for entire cultural projects, and they are especially evident in the “superstructure” of theoretical thought and other phenomena of high culture. We might think of them as “spiritual grammars” which suffuse and determine the knowledge production and meaning-making of entire societies.

Roughly speaking, Nature-Grace is a species of religious ground motive marked by the differentia of “synthesis”—that is, a synthesis of the pagan Greek “Matter-Form” and Christian “Creation-Fall-Redemption” ground motives. For Dooyeweerd, the cultural project of Roman Christendom is best understood as an outworking of this properly spiritual commitment to synthesis. If the spiritual core of Greek democracy was its fascination with the dualistic mystery of becoming and being; passible and impassible; body and mind (to name only a few renditions of this single mystery), the corresponding heart of Roman Christendom was its fascination with a modified dualism—one which manifested itself in such forms as secular and sacred; state and church; reason and faith. Without denying the relative originality of the Roman Nature-Grace ground motive with respect to its “ancestor,” Matter-Form, there remains a deep continuity between the two in the sense that both projects spring from the recognition of a spiritual dualism which serves as a sort of prima causa efficiens of their respective cultural accomplishments.

Dooyeweerd’s alternative, of course, is the Reformational reinstatement of Creation-Fall-Redemption as antithetical to both Matter-Form and Nature-Grace ground motives inasmuch as both are irredeemably caught up in such dualism. “If form no longer opposes matter, nor matter form [read also: nature grace], the mind-body dualism is annulled. Universality (which was located in form) and individuality (in matter) are reconciled, displaying ‘fullness and splendour’.”[4] On this biblical view, it is “covenant” which spans across the dualities of Matter-Form and Nature-Grace, respectively, rendering the cosmos as a whole and especially human beings as both revelatory and absolutely contingent upon the Creator in their very existence. As Dooyeweerd remarks,
The scriptural motive of creation thus turns one's view of temporal reality around. It cuts off at the root every view of reality which grows out of an idolatrous, dualistic ground motive which posits two origins of reality and thus splits it into two opposing parts. Jehovah God is integrally, that is totally, the origin of all that is created. The existence of man [sic], created in the image of God, is integrally, that is totally, concentrated in his heart, soul, or spirit. And this centre of existence is the religious root unity of all man's functions in temporal reality—without exception.[5]
Integrally, totally, without exception—these are the words Dooyeweerd uses to capture the essence of what is first (and last) in the spiritual motive of Creation-Fall-Redemption. What is real, good and yes, true, is precisely what is created; for to be created is to bear the image of the Creator who is nothing other than the fullness of those very perfections. Far from being signs of imperfection in themselves, the realms of “matter” and “nature” are only intelligible to the extent that they are part and parcel of the drama of God’s reconciling the world to himself in Christ.

Zuidervaart’s Critique

Zuidervaart reads Dooyeweerd’s conception of religious truth as an attempt to chart a “third way” between the Scylla and Charybdis of “immanence philosophy” on the one hand and the project of “synthesis” on the other. Modern immanence philosophy (1) tends to remain engrossed in the problems associated with relativism and skepticism, whereas synthesis philosophy (2) threatens the unity of creation in its accommodation of (Nature-Grace) dualism. But how does Dooyeweerd’s position avoid both of these unsavory results? Zuidervaart answers,
Dooyeweerd forthrightly embraces the scandal of the cross. We “cannot attain … true self-knowledge [waarachtige zelf-kennis],” or true knowledge of the created world either, he says, “without true knowledge of God, which cannot be gained outside of the divine revelation in Christ” (NC 2: 562, WW 2: 494). Both scripture and John Calvin provide this insight, and both “synthesis philosophy” and “immanence philosophy” have lost sight of it. The inclusion and dependence of all true knowledge, including theoretical truth, vis-à-vis the true knowledge of God “is the only purely Biblical view [of knowledge] and the alpha and omega of any truly Christian epistemology” (NC 2: 561, WW 2: 492).
Dooyeweerd’s conception of religious truth avoids immanence philosophy by affirming the transcendent unity of all truth claims, while also avoiding the reason-faith dualism of synthesis philosophy. “The scandal of the cross,” Dooyeweerd says, is the aforementioned “either-or”—one is either directed towards “the absolute Truth” or “the spirit of falsehood.”

It is not difficult to see the problems which could potentially plague this daring formulation, as Zuidervaart remarks,
[N]o subjective a priori in any horizon can genuinely make experience possible if the subject of experience does not respond properly to divine revelation. Because Dooyeweerd construes religious responses in an antithetical manner, the absurd consequence follows that only Christians, or perhaps even only authentic Christians, would be subjectively capable of experience. In other words, religion would trump experience rather than direct and sustain it. We would not have an epistemology but rather a denial of epistemology. The “problem of knowledge” would be “solved” by taking it off the table. This solution would be philosophically scandalous, I admit, but hardly the “scandal of the cross.”[6]
If non-Christians cannot even in principle accept and dispose themselves towards the spirit of Truth in Christ except by conversion, it seems to follow that Dooyeweerd’s “epistemology” is nothing other than a dogmatic assertion of Christian revelation. Indeed, the very notion of “experience”—truth conducive experience, at least—is simply unavailable to non-Christians.

This result is untenable, for Zuidervaart, and not only because it strikes him as intuitively repugnant. Rather, the position seems to miss entirely the spirit of Christ’s affirmation of what it means to be truthful in the first place: “To live and enact truth, one needs to learn from and with others, ever anew, what truth requires. This is implied, I think, when Jesus says to his disciples that he is ‘the way, and the truth, and the life’.”[7] If it is indeed the case that the mystery of truth “requires” learning from others (including those in different religious traditions), then Dooyeweerd’s conception of religious truth as one side of a fundamentally antithetical disposition is compromised at the deepest of levels; for his understanding of “the scandal of the cross” does not seem to be able to allow for this process of mutual learning as a per se attribute of truth itself.

Zuidervaart concludes by urging his readers to reconsider Dooyeweerdian religious truth in light of a point that is rather similar to the aforementioned differentia of Creation-Fall-Redemption as the spiritual core of Reformational philosophy: “if the ‘light of truth’ shines from God’s revelation for humankind, then there is no corner or community that does not live in this light.”[8] In other words, far from “religious truth” being somehow limited to the confines of those who have happened to hear and respond to the call of God in explicitly confessional Christian communities, “there is not one square inch” of human history that is not constituted by—and therefore reflective of—Truth itself.

Nature-Grace’s odd haunting

I find myself in agreement with these criticisms of Dooyeweerdian religious truth, as far as they go. What I would like to ask of Lambert Zuidervaart, however, is whether he feels comfortable going a bit further than the letter of his essay indicates. Is it not the case that, to the extent that Dooyeweerd limits the light of “absolute truth” to particular confessional communities, Dooyeweerd is implicating himself in yet another, more vicious dualism between faithful and apostate? How could God’s truth admit such radical exception when the whole point of Creation-Fall-Redemption is that all creatures (even and especially non-Christians) just are “without exception” their integral dependence upon the God who is, among other things, Truth itself?

It may be too much to say without a careful justification which goes beyond the scope of these ramblings, but perhaps Dooyeweerd’s discovery of Nature-Grace as a dualistic synthesis of Matter-Form actually runs more deeply than Dooyeweerd knew himself. Perhaps the most fundamental dualism—the one which Creation-Fall-Redemption withstands and precedes—is the very dualism implicit in the notion of an evil or falsehood which is somehow “more” or even “co-eternal” with the perfective habit of which it is but a privation. There is no such thing; for “as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” (1 Cor. 15:22, NRSV). Is there not a better concise summary of Dooyeweerd’s own brilliant resolve in rejecting the sorts of “exceptions” which the Greek polis could not do without? And further, is there not a better summary of Dooyeweerd’s own vulnerability to that very spiritual dualism, when all is said and done?

[1] Lambert Zuidervaart, Religion, Truth, and Social Transformation: Essays in Reformational Philosophy, 59.
[2] Herman Dooyeweerd, Roots of Western Culture, 9.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Herman Dooyeweerd, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought II.418.
[5] Dooyeweerd, Roots of Western Culture, 31.
[6] Zuidervaart, Religion, Truth, and Social Transformation, 69.
[7] Ibid., 74.
[8] Ibid.

Joshua Harris holds an MA in Philosophy from Trinity Western University, where he defended a thesis exploring the possibility of understanding Thomas Aquinas as a mediator in contemporary debates arising from the so-called "analytic-continental divide" in the twentieth century. As a PhD candidate in Phlosophy at the Institute for Christian Studies, his research interests include philosophy of language, philosophical theology and Christian social thought.


  1. Wonderfully clear exposition, Joshua. Many thanks. When I got to your last paragraph, however, I wondered if I had understood your point. Is your point that the good/evil distinction is at bottom the basis for spiritual dualism in Christian thought? In making this point I take you to hold to an implicit distinction between what Vollenhoven often speaks of as a dualism on the one hand and a duality on the other. He thinks there are dualities to be encountered in the world and thought about as such. He cites biological sex as an example. A dualism on the other hand is a marking of a distinction between "this" and "that" that hypostasizes the relation between some circumscribable identity, some "A" on the one hand and its negation--all that is "not-A"--on the other. A negation isn't anything, properly speaking. To treat it as if it were something, that is, to hypostasize a negation, is to introduce a dualism into one's thought. To make that dualism the root of one's thinking about the world is to think about the world dualistically, which is to think in conformity with a spirit that is not the Spirit of Truth we could say. If all of this is correct, then to think in terms of the good/evil distinction, all thought is either good (rightly directed) or evil (apostately directed) is to think dualistically for evil is not something in contrast to good, but rather its negation or perversion, a not-A to the good's A. Is it something like this that you are claiming to be operative in Dooyeweerd's thought, Joshua, or have I gone into the gigglyweeds, importing Vollenhovian notions where they just do not belong?

    1. Thanks for the comment, Bob. I think your Vollenhovian point re: "duality" and "dualism" is a clearer and better version of what I was trying to say. Indeed, it is the latter that seems to me to be operative as the conceptual grammar of this apostasy/belief relation.

      Yet I hope it comes across that this dualism matter is for me little more than an educated impression as I read Dooyeweerd. I could easily be shown to be wrong about such a characterization. But I should say that Zuidervaart's essay reinforced precisely that nagging impression; hence, this (perhaps overly provocative) call for clarification.

    2. Well, blog pieces are supposed to be provocative, and your suggestion is just the right sort of provocation, the kind of legitimate questioning of the tradition that Lambert identities with retrieval. My guess is that Dooyeweerd has resources that could be tapped in response to your provocation, and if not Dooyeweerd then Vollenhoven or one of the many other in the Reformational cloudlet of witnesses. I will do my best to channel Dooyeweerd but it would be better to get someone like Jonathan Chaplin whose deep familiarity with the spirit and letter is such that his response would be most telling. So Jonathan if you are lurking out there, I have hopefully given you a hole you could drive a lorry through (does that work in UK English? or is it a dialect-ically mixed metaphor?).

  2. I must admit that I’m rather confused about Zuidervaart’s claim that Dooyeweerd’s view leads to “the absurd consequence … that only Christians, or perhaps even only authentic Christians, would be subjectively capable of experience. In other words, religion would trump experience rather than direct and sustain it.” Dooyeweerd is talking about truth, not experience per se, and he is focusing on the religious fullness of truth. He was very willing to acknowledge that philosophers from diverse religious traditions have recognised and uncovered important states of affairs and offered profound and worthwhile philosophical reflections on them. He also understood well, and rejected the charge that a religious philosophy would give itself a privileged position:
    The second thought that easily comes to mind is that the Calvinists, who accept divine revelation as the absolute Truth will claim that same monopoly on truth for their philosophical views. A new debasement of philosophy would seem to be the inevitable result. For philosophy is the love of wisdom, a tireless searching and struggling for truth. But if one imagines that he already possesses the Truth, he or she no longer needs to search for it. And nothing would be easier than for such a person to claim a privileged position in philosophical discussions with other schools of thought and to brand one’s adversaries with the stigma of being “un-christian.”” (Reformation and scholasticism in philosophy II.19)
    Dooyeweerd, however, defends the “scientific character of philosophy” while seeking to combat every closed system (RS II.26). Dogmatism occurs when philosophy “puts all its confidence in philosophical thought and pretends that its religious presuppositions are theoretical axioms” (RS II.26). While explaining that his philosophy of the Law-Idea seeks to unmask the dogmatism of humanistic philosophy and opposes in principle scholasticism, Dooyeweerd states that “Nevertheless, it recognizes the scientific value of classic scholasticism, found in its often profound philosophical insights. In the same manner it also wishes to do full justice to ancient Greek and modern humanistic philosophy. It steadfastly opposes, however, every attempt at synthesis between the Christian ground-motive and the ground-motive of unscriptural philosophy.
    The philosophy of the Law-Idea also maintains the historical continuity of philosophical thought, but with the proviso that there is radical discontinuity in the religious ground-motives and in the basic philosophical ideas dominated by them. It nourishes itself upon the whole tradition of philosophical thought and thus fully recognizes its own historical conditioning; but in its basic conception it nevertheless sets itself against that philosophical tradition.” (RS II 26-27)

  3. I also wonder how fair it is to say that "Dooyeweerd limits the light of “absolute truth” to particular confessional communities". Doesn't Dooyeweerd object strongly to this in his introduction to Roots of Western Culture? "The antithesis is ... not a dividing line between Christian and nonchristian groups." It "cuts right through the Christian life itself", "the Christian principle is not the permanent possession of a select few who can manipulate it as if it were a collection of magical formulas! On the contrary. It is a dynamic, spiritual force that cannot be halted. Those who enclose it within the fixed boundaries of tradition are irrevocably left behind" etc.

    1. Thanks for the comments, Rudi. I'll do my best to respond concisely (your comments in >><<).

      >>Dooyeweerd is talking about truth, not experience per se, and he is focusing on the religious fullness of truth.<<

      I agree that D is not talking about experience per se, but he does say that "[T]rue knowledge of God and of ourselves” concerns “the horizon of human experience" (NC 2: 562-63). To the extent that we're talking about "religious truth," then, we are also talking about experience, since the former serves as horizon for the latter.

      >>Dooyeweerd, however, defends the “scientific character of philosophy” while seeking to combat every closed system<<

      This seems right (thanks for the quotations), but I think Zuidervaart's point is not that D is unaware of the problem of doing away with epistemology, but rather that D's conception of religious truth makes it difficult to see how he can succeed in preserving the scientific character of philosophy. He (and I following him) has provided interpretations and arguments as to why this might be the case.

      >>I also wonder how fair it is to say that "Dooyeweerd limits the light of “absolute truth” to particular confessional communities".<<

      I think you're right to call me out on this. I could have been more careful in my rendering of what D actually means. Yet it seems to me that the more fundamental point has not been touched on: namely, that D construes religious responses as antithetical, and thus risks what Peter Geach once cleverly called "logical Manicheanism"--that is, "setting up of the
      True and the False as two objects of reference implicitly recognized in all thinking." This is the risk of dualism I worry about.

      Thanks again for the interaction.